Call for democracy in the Socialist Workers Party

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By John Molyneaux

In this contribution to the Pre-conference Bulletin No2, headed Democracy in the SWP, British SWP veteran John Molyneux exposes the intolerance and monolithism of the leadership and, as “a strongly committed member of the SWP”, calls for far-reaching cultural change.

At the party council on September 22, I, with some others, made a call for “a more democratic culture in the SWP”. This call met with two kinds of hostile response. Some claimed that the SWP was fully democratic already, so what were we on about? Others that it was illegitimate to raise the question of democracy without proposing an alternative political perspective. In this article I want to discuss these issues and develop what I mean by a more democratic culture in the party.

Those who claim that the SWP is highly democratic have, in a sense, a strong case. They argue that the SWP has a democratic constitution, a democratically elected leadership, a sovereign conference, a democratically elected national committee and so on. Above all they argued that the party is engaged in a continuous process of political debate and discussion at branch meetings, district meetings, party councils, Marxism, etc, at which disagreement is not only allowed, but often positively invited. Now, since all of this is undoubtedly true, it would appear that there is no problem.

Except there is a problem. And the nature of the problem can most clearly be seen if we look at the outcome of all these meetings, councils, conferences, elections, etc. The fact is that in the last 15 years (perhaps longer) there has not been a single substantial issue on which the CC has been defeated at a conference or party council or NC. Indeed I don’t think that in this period there has ever been even a serious challenge or a close vote. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of conference or council sessions have ended with the virtually unanimous endorsement of whatever is proposed by the leadership. Similarly, in this period there has never been a contested election for the CC: ie, not one comrade has ever been proposed or proposed themselves for the CC other than those nominated by the CC themselves.
It is worth emphasising that such a state of affairs is a long way from the norm in the history of the socialist movement. It was not the norm in the Bolshevik Party or the Communist International before its Stalinisation. It was not the norm at any point in the Trotskyist tradition under Trotsky. It was not the norm even in the Labour Party before the Blairite stranglehold was established. And it was not always the norm in our organisation – it was certainly not the case in the 60s, 70s and early 80s, when there were vigorous debates and serious divisions on questions such as democratic centralism, factory branches, Ireland, the Common Market, the name of the organisation, the nature of Socialist Worker, the downturn, Women’s Voice and many other issues.

So what accounts for this remarkable `unanimity’? One answer might be that it is all down to the outstanding leadership provided by the CC which has enabled them to maintain such high authority and support. Actually I think there is some truth in this. Without the vindication of our basic politics on questions such as Stalinism, the Labour Party and imperialist war, and without a series of correct strategic decisions – for example, over anti-capitalism and the anti-war movement – the consensus would doubtless have broken down.
Nevertheless this is by no means the whole story. Sometimes the leadership has not been that outstanding, and sometimes mistakes (for example, the policy of splitting branches until they were ever smaller and smaller) were persisted in without being corrected or even coherently contested despite the growth of simmering discontent in the ranks. In reality the root cause of the CC’s dominance and the docility of the members lies neither in the good nor the bad behaviour of the leadership, but in the nature of the period we have come through – above all the grim years of the 80s.

In fact genuine democracy is very difficult to achieve in any organisation in capitalist society, including the revolutionary party. This is because capitalism undermines the confidence of working people and conditions them to passivity from the cradle to the grave, and this conditioning does not miraculously disappear on signing a membership form.

When the level of struggle is high and rising, the confidence and consciousness of workers rises through their experience of the collective power. This is ABC for us, but the point is that it applies inside the party too. In an upturn when members disagree with their party leadership it is often as part of a collective with an experience of common struggle (which doesn’t necessarily make them right, of course).

In contrast, in a downturn the general experience of members is defeat and isolation, which makes it much more difficult to challenge the party leadership. When as a revolutionary socialist you feel your back is to the wall, defending your basic beliefs against what seems like a largely hostile world, it is hard to take on your own leaders as well.

But this `objective’ materialist explanation of the problem, while true, is also not the whole story. On the basis of this objective situation the party has developed, almost imperceptibly, a series of practices which reinforce the dominant position of the leadership.

One of these is the almost perfect unity and solidarity which the CC maintains in inner- party discussion. Whatever disagreements arise between them – and arise they must – they are kept strictly to themselves (apart from the occasional leak to close insiders), and a common front is presented at national meetings. As a general rule no CC member openly disagrees with another CC member, and all or most CC members combine to back each other up if anyone dissents. Moreover this internal solidarity has an informal but real tendency to extend to all those who work at the party centre. This cohesion obviously confers an enormous advantage in any dispute.

Another such practice is the way sessions at conferences, councils, etc are organised: generally without motions from branches and with the speaker’s slip system. There are, of course, a number of good reasons for these procedures but they have the side effect of allowing the CC, through control of the slips, complete control of the order of debate. Certainly this is exercised with discretion – dissenters are allowed to speak – but the common pattern is that any serious political contributions are rapidly rebutted by several speakers from the leadership and, crucially, the dissident has no opportunity to reply.

To give just one example: a few years ago at a party council, I disagreed, in just a couple of sentences, with the leadership’s estimation of the nature and size of the Birmingham demonstration to save Longbridge. My brief comments were promptly replied to by at least five members of the CC. Finally there has been the habit – fortunately much reduced of late, but still not entirely a thing of the past – of attacking people who disagree, aggressively and personally.

The net effect of these practices has been (a) to load all debates massively in the leadership’s favour; (b) to make open disagreement at national meetings (as opposed to in private conversation) a highly disagreeable experience with little prospect of success. In other words it has been to deter dissent. Overall it has led to a conception of the many national and local meetings primarily, even overwhelmingly, as transmission belts for the dissemination of policy from the leadership to the membership rather than as opportunities for the members to determine policy or hold the leadership to account.

Now is it wrong to raise such issues without proposing an alternative perspective? Not in my opinion. I don’t see why disagreement should have this `all or nothing’ character. I am a strongly committed member of the SWP and agree with all its basic politics, and with the main lines of its current policy and orientation, but I don’t think it is perfect, and from time to time I disagree with certain things. For when that happens I want a structure and culture which not only gives me the right to say so, but which also gives me the possibility, if my arguments are good, of having some success. Put it this way: just because the current general line of the party is correct does it matter if there are weaknesses in its democracy? Yes, because tomorrow the line, or aspects of it, may not be right and we will need a flourishing democracy to correct it.

I believe we paid a heavy price for the weakness of our internal democracy in the 90s and after. In this period we persisted in the organisational tactic of splitting branches, which was based, in my opinion, on an exaggerated, over-optimistic perspective, long after there was considerable evidence that it wasn’t working. And this contributed significantly to our substantial loss of membership in these years. A more vibrant democracy in the party would, I think, have called a halt to this policy and limited the damage done. Instead the climate was such that the difficulties and the membership loss were never even admitted.

However, in one respect the question of party democracy is connected to the perspective, in that I think the present and the coming period makes improvement in this area vital.

Firstly, comrades in the movements of which we are a part expect and demand it. Becoming more democratic will, I think, help us to recruit and retain such comrades. Not being so is likely to repel them. Secondly, the more success we have, the more the struggle rises and the more we interact with the outside world, the more we will face complex tactical issues requiring open debate and input from below. Immediately this applies particularly to our interventions, as part of Respect, in electoral politics – the more so if we start to win council or even parliamentary seats.

So what should be done? First and foremost the party needs to find its collective voice again. I would appeal to party members, especially experienced members, `cadres’ and the like, to speak up if and when they have concerns and disagreements.

The political climate has changed, in the world, the movement and the party – the time is right. I would appeal to the leadership and their more enthusiastic supporters not to treat those who raise disagreements as some combination of irresponsible irritants and disloyal `oppos’ – reply vigorously to arguments, of course, but try to refrain from personal attacks.

If this change in culture and atmosphere can be achieved, it will mean more than any specific formal changes. However, I would also suggest that adoption of the following practices might help:

  • having contested CC elections;
  • restoring the practice of branch motions to conference;
  • granting, as custom and practice, the right of reply to comrades who raise significant disagreements at conference and other national meetings.
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